Next Goal Wins. Tara Brady on the best film about the worst little national soccer team – ever,
A new documentary tells the story of the world’s worst football team – and the world’s first transsexual international footballer. Tara Brady meets American Samoa’s coach and centre back
In 2001, American Samoa’s attempts to qualify for the Fifa World Cup ended in a 31-0 thrashing at the hands of Australia – the worst defeat ever recorded in international soccer, a defeat that rewrote the rulebook. The one-sidedness of the encounter ensured the Oceanic zone had a preliminary qualifying round in time for the 2006 World Cup. It also contributed to Australia’s parachute drop into the Asian Football Confederation.
Twelve years after that record-breaking international, American Samoa continued to languish at the very bottom of the Fifa rankings, having scored only twice in 17 years. They needed a miracle.
Enter Thomas Rongen, a gruff Dutch coach who began his footballing career at Ajax before moving to the North American Soccer League, where he coached George Best and Johan Cruyff, before leading the U-20 US side to two successive world cups.
“I wanted to challenge myself,” Rongen tells me. “I didn’t want to think about potential failure. If you’re driven at the highest level, you want the biggest challenges.”
But how would the softly spoken, oh-so-polite islanders cope with Rongen’s old-school hairdryer effect? This thrilling culture clash lies at the heart of Next Goal Wins, a heart-warming new sports documentary from British film-makers Mike Brett and Steve Jamison.
The directors were already filming the World’s Worst Team when Rongen took the post; he was the only applicant for the job. Was he disturbed to suddenly become the star of sporting underdog film?
“In my line of work – especially working in the United States – it’s very common to have that kind of media access in place. And I very quickly realised it was potentially a beautiful story. But I never thought I’d be attending the Los Angeles premiere. I never thought I’d be sitting here in London with Jaiyah talking to you.”
Jaiyah is Jaiyah Saelua, American Samoa’s talismanic centre back: picture Roy Keane if he ran like a girl. An impossibly statuesque being, she’s hardly big news in American Samoa, which has long played home to the fa’afafine (or those who live “the way of the woman”). But under Rongen, she entered the record books as the world’s first transsexual international footballer.
They can laugh about it now. And do. But it wasn’t easy: at first Rongen thought she was the team masseuse. And Saelua’s initial impression of the coach was not entirely positive either.
“I thought he was very loud and cocky,” she laughs. “After the first session we all said something to each other about how obnoxious the coach is. But right away we could see that he loves what he does. So I knew he’d help the team with our development. I knew he was good for us. I saw it as an opportunity.”
Between tournaments, Jaiyah – or Johnny to her teammates – lives as a woman and studies dance and performing arts in Hawaii. Football must require an entirely different set of muscles, surely?
“It’s not so much a physical thing,” she tells me. “The discipline in dance and in soccer are very similar. But I do have to adjust my train of thought a little. I have to think tough. Dancing is soft. In football I think like a boy.”
Jaiyah’s inclusion in Rongen’s starting 11 is no gimmick. She and the World’s Worst Team do, indeed, improve over the course of the film. “My biggest re- sponsibility was to turn that losers’ mentality into a winners’ mentality,” says Rongen. “I had to make sure we got that first victory.”
In this robust spirit, he quickly introduced the islanders to such non-niceties as slide tackle. He found an extra man under the “grandfather rule”. He recalled Nicky Salapu, the goalie who watched 31 go by two campaigns earlier. And he incorporated a traditional Samoan warrior chant – not unlike New Zealand’s haka – into training.
“It was important to bring in that American Samoan warrior spirit. Show me how to fight and I’ll show you how to win.”
While Rongen toughened up his American Samoan squad, they softened his harder edges. Next Goal Wins chronicles a kind of spiritual journey for the troubleshooting coach, who took the job as a way of overcoming the loss of his 18-year-old daughter in a car crash. It was an incredible journey, he says.
“Beautiful island. Beautiful people. Great culture. A great culture of inclusiveness. Everybody goes to church. But in that spirit of inclusivity. There’s no judgment. There are no prejudices about gender or sexuality. The islanders have a refreshing, original way of seeing life. I’m so happy we can share that with people through the life. Because the first thing you think about the place is ‘I want to share this with everyone’.”
Both Jaiyah Saelua and Thomas Rongen are hoping for another crack at representing the nation of American Samoa: “I would love to,” says Rongen. “There’s still great untapped talent there. The 2018 World Cup in Russia: that’s our goal. That would be the perfect end to a perfect story.”
Until then, Jaiyah is still waiting for a major designer to answer her onscreen plea for redcarpet friendly frocks.
“I’ve had to buy my own,” she says. “Maybe it’s because I look terrible in the film.”
She really doesn’t.
NEXT GOAL WINS Directed by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison. Featuring Thomas Rongen, Nicky Salapu, Jaiyah Saelua Club, IFI, Dublin, 96 min
What comes under underdog? This documentary chronicles American Samoa’s 2014 World Cup campaign. We say campaign: we mean preliminary round matches. The same team made footballing history and the planet’s back pages when their efforts to qualify for 2002 produced a series of catastrophic results, including a whopping 31-goal defeat by Australia.
At the beginning of Next Goal Wins, the World’s official Worst Team are tied for 204th and last in the Fifa rankings, and have been outscored 229-12 since starting international play in 1994. Ouch.
Enter Dutch coach Thomas Rongen, a loud, sweary, smoking guv’nor of the old school: picture an Amsterdammer Brian Clough in cargo pants. Player-turned-coach Rongen has a respectable track record in North American football dating back to the late 1970s. Can he knock the good-natured, kindhearted, mostly amateur American Samoan side into shape? Will they ever win a game? Will they ever master the slide tackle?
This engaging, feel-good sports doc is commendably respectful of its subjects. The film-makers are keen to remind us that sorrowful goalkeeper Nicky Salapu – who stood in goal during that fateful match against Australia – is more than a comic meme.
There is, moreover, a pleasing melancholy to counteract the punch-the-air sporting dramatics. Rongen, we learn, has lost his 18-year-old daughter in a car crash. Most of the territory’s young men join the military and leave as soon as they are old enough. The region was badly affected by the 2009 earthquake and tsunami.
Against all that, the locals are cheeringly positive. The weather is balmy. The islanders talk repeatedly about community and inclusivity. In this spirit, even at the bottom of the Fifa pile, they genuinely seem to cherish and celebrate their national squad. How fitting that fabulous centre back Jaiyah Saelua – Fifa’s first transgender player – emerges as a key figure in Rongen’s team.
’Tis the season for over use of sporting cliches noting the romance of the World Cup. But if you can’t find it in Next Goal Wins, you’re not going to find it anywhere.
Defender Jaiyah Saelua (near left) prepares for the crunch tie against Tonga at the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. Below: Saelua with teammate Nicky Salapu and coach Thomas